“This is our new reality. It’s a real shock, and I’m still trying to process the enormity of it.”

“We’re not even at the climax of the crisis and I don’t know what ripple effects we’ll see, as society and institutions react and respond in progressive and regressive ways.”

“I feel tensions between what I value and what appears to be falling all around us. What should I hold on to? What really matters?”

These thoughts might have crossed your mind, or have heard expressed in recent weeks by friends and colleagues. This is certainly true for us - these were just some of the comments emerging from a recent team meeting at Forum for the Future.

At a time of such disruption, uncertainty and change, it is of immense importance to dive into the practical, emotional and even existential difficulties that we face. The COVID-19 crisis highlights how crucial our work is, and that the world is and will continue to change rapidly. We need to get used to this: radical change in the coming decades is inevitable, and we need to learn how to thrive in uncertain times.

Just like everyone else, we are feeling our way forward. We’d like to share some of the ways in which we are learning to adjust to this new reality, in the hope that it may help other organisations and leaders grow their own adaptation strategies.

“What if we used this disruption as an opportunity to let go of everything that isn’t essential in our life, in our work, and in our institutional routines? How might we reimagine how we live and work together?” - Otto Scharmer, The Presencing Institute

Evolving how we engage with stakeholders

Until now, much of our work has traditionally been in person. As we convene and facilitate collaborations within and among groups of people who share a desire for a more sustainable future, including equipping people with system change knowledge and skills, we’re quickly embracing virtual working and adapting to keep our work engaging and meaningful online. 

How are we not just adapting to online work? 

Adaptation has been a logistical feat. But to provide a level of engagement as rich as in-person workshops, we are experimenting with various online platforms, tools and methods of creating shared ownership and co-development of outputs - such as participatory mapping tools, online polls and live translations to bridge language barriers. 

We transformed a full-day strategy development workshop with the Bosch Foundation into several virtual working sessions spanning a three week period. With China-based stakeholders in the man-made cellulosic fibres (MMCF) industry, we hosted an online workshop to help create a global vision for a net positive MMCF sector - creating two three-hour sessions in a week that brought together fashion brands, manufacturers, non-profits in the forestry, chemicals and circular economy fields, and other industry bodies.

Will we be as successful in uniting people online, as offline? In a world where travel is not a given and climate action is imperative, we must be.

Supporting our emotional wellbeing

Change is difficult. Letting go of the illusion of certainty is also difficult - not just practically, but also emotionally. Never before have we seen financial, emotional and familial challenges come together on so wide a scale across all levels of society.

The collision of home and work life brought about by emergency lockdown has meant that colleagues provide a much needed emotional lifeline for isolated individuals. At Forum, supportive messages on wellbeing and parenting have skyrocketed on Slack, our office messaging system. We are running weekly ‘listening’ and virtual cake and pub sessions for staff members to stay connected, process the enormity of what we’re facing, and share how we’re feeling. Leaders are able to admit vulnerability without looking weak. Acknowledging fear or sadness is more than okay and is actually what makes us resilient during times of disruption. 

The COVID-19 crisis has brought home the fact that each of us has a personal, as well as professional identity, and that the two are indivisible. Whatever happens, this prioritising of staff well-being - particularly emotional and mental - can only be a good thing.

Creative and flexible working

Suddenly, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, we're all grappling with childcare or health issues, or fears for aged parents. These are things that are usually invisible in the workplace. Forum has prided itself on being a flexible employer for a long time, but we’re now really stretching that to its limit. People - employees - are not just faces on desks, but come complete with families, emotions, health and social needs. 

We’re experimenting just like any other organisation, with extremely flexible hours, reduced meetings and more intelligent use of our online communication tools. But for some parents who are working well into the night, this might not be sustainable. 

If reduced social interaction becomes a long-term reality, what are the governance models that can support collective adaptability? For example, how can we support parents who need to nurture their children whilst finding time to work? How might we respond to different individual needs in an equitable way? 

Asking big questions about what next

We’re conscious that, to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we need to cultivate different ways of working and being. COVID-19 is an invitation to all of us to do so, at a pace and scale we certainly hadn’t anticipated. We can take this upheaval to create positive change for the future.

But we can’t just rush into this. We all need to be able to pause and process what we’re experiencing,  including the painful and difficult things this is bringing up. If we don’t, the danger is that, after the worst is over, we may revert back to our old systems and ways of working. But, in order to thrive, we need cooperation and collaboration. Achieving the SDGs and radically decarbonising our economy will require fundamentally changing the goals of the system - and for that to happen, all of society will need to work together. At Forum, we recognise that we’re part of a wider field of system change that needs to be mutually supportive and cultivated together. And we’re being honest with ourselves in asking where, or how, we may go back to ‘business as usual’ in a world that is no longer the same. 

Out of something awful, something new can emerge. This is an opportunity to cultivate a completely different way of organising our economies, our families, our healthcare systems, financial systems, travel systems, and our business models. They need to be regenerative, distributed, connected, equitable, and they need to protect the vulnerable and prioritise justice for people and environment. We at Forum won’t pretend to have the all the answers about what this looks like, or how we get there. But we are committed to being part of the journey with you.

This piece was co-authored by Louise Armstong and Sean Andrew.

View other articles and insights from Forum for the Future

If you are concerned about Covid-19 and need further advice, seek information from your local government and health providers. Links to advice for our office locations are as follows: India, United Kingdom, United States, Singapore. Uncertainty and crises can be challenging for everyone, please also take care of your mental health during this time, with more information on actions you can take to do so here
 (from a UK source).